Political advertising on social media used to be the wild west: nearly anything could be done by nearly anyone with minimal restrictions and oversight.
Then came the 2016 US presidential elections. The combination of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and accusations of Russian meddling made it apparent that social networks had to tighten up everything from how they handled data and who they let access their platforms to how they presented content and ads.
While the election was the catalyst for these changes, they were also a long-time coming. Social networks may have begun as places for users post personal updates for friends and family, but they evolved into important forums for public debate and sources of information: according a Pew survey, two-thirds of Americans now report getting some of their news from social media.
So, although social networks have wanted to remain hands-off for both philosophical and legal reasons, they have started to take the plunge and establish rules around political advertising. In particular, two platforms have made a series of major recent changes: Facebook (the biggest network for both content and advertising) and Twitter (the favorite network of many politicians and interest groups).
For publishers, these changes have been especially impactful. Because news organizations often post politics-related content, and because they often promote themselves on social networks, they've increasingly found themselves affected by the changes: Facebook's filter has already incorrectly identified a host of publishers' ads as political, and Twitter has also accidentally flagged tweets. That's why it's vital for every organization to understand these new policies.
So, what are the specific changes that have been made so far? Here's what publishers need to know:
Political Ads on Facebook
The first major change that Facebook has made is that anyone who now wants to run ads related to politics must be authorized.
The process for authorization varies from country to country. In the United States it entails having two-factor authentication enabled and proving that you're based in the country by submitting proof of a US driver's license or passport and US-based residential address, as well as the last four digits of the page administrator's Social Security number.
The second major change is in how ads are presented and stored on Facebook and sister site Instagram. Essentially the company wants its users to see who an ad is coming from, and it wants to provide more visibility into past campaigns that have run. In order to do this, it has notified advertisers that:
- Ads should include a disclaimer that shows the name of the person or entity that paid for the ad.
- Ads may be stored in the Ad Archive for a period of up to 7 years.
The third big change isn't as noticeable to users, but it is having a major impact: Facebook has dramatically increased its efforts to thwart unsavory and/or fraudulent political advertisers. As TechCrunch noted, the company is using AI to sniff out advertisers who have not properly verified themselves and has increased the prominence of its "Report Ad" button so that its users can flag troublesome units.
This is not all just for show. Facebook is enforcing the new guidelines strictly and political campaigns have already been tripped up by failing to comply.
For publishers, its important to realize that the Facebook's definition of ads covered under the policy — anything related to "politics or issues of national importance" — is very broad and can relate to much of their own advertising. That's why every organization should study the nuances of the changes. To do so, check out this Blueprint course Facebook created, as well as this FAQ.
Political Ads on Twitter
Twitter has taken many of the same steps and some additional ones as well.
As with Facebook, Twitter has defined political advertising broadly ("Ads that refer to an election or a clearly identified candidate, or ads that advocate for legislative issues of national importance.") and it has restricted who can run these types of ads.
In the United States, the requirements for running political ads include going through Twitter's certification process and being US-based. State-owned media outlets are prohibited from political advertising, as are foreign nationals.
While Twitter has not implemented technology and processes to identify accounts/ads that break the rules as comprehensively as Facebook, it has been been even more aggressive in encouraging transparency. Under its new rules, handles used for political advertising must:
- Have a profile photo, header photo, and website that are consistent with its online presence
- Have a Twitter bio that includes a website link with valid contact information.
Moreover, Twitter added a visual badge and disclaimer information to all promoted political content from certified accounts. The company said it did this because it will allow users "to easily identify political campaigning ads, know who paid for them, and whether it was authorized by a candidate."
A key thing to note is that ads promoted by news publishers will be exempt from many of these policies if the organizations meet certain criteria. The full requirements can be seen here, but some of the major ones are that:
- The publisher must have a minimum of 200,000 monthly unique US visitors
- The publisher cannot be a user-generated or aggregation platform
- The publisher cannot be dedicated to advocating for a single issue
News publishers can also have Twitter handles for their journalists exempted if they also meet certain conditions.
Given the broad definitions of political advertising, the close overlap of news advertising and issue/campaign advertising, and the strict enforcement of the rules, it's essential for publishers of all sizes to understand these changes made by the social networks and to take action. If organizations don't properly register their accounts, follow transparency guidelines, and apply for exemptions, they may find their own campaigns unintentionally ensnared in these powerful new safety nets.
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